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Walls as Canvases

One of the area’s newest murals was created by artist Conrad Kaufman for the Betzler Funeral Home on Stadium Drive. Courtesy photo.
Muralists see the big picture

It’s true what they say: The only constant in life is change. Look at any city skyline and this universal truth stares back at you. In the realm of public murals, there is always the chance that what was so painstakingly created over weeks or months can be painted over in a matter of hours.

But that’s the name of the game in the mural world, and for some of Kalamazoo’s muralists it adds to the experience of creating public art.

As a trio of muralists points out, murals enrich public spaces and create a sense of beauty, ownership and identity.

“Aesthetically, they add a flash of something pretty,” says Conrad Kaufman, a local artist who has painted hundreds of murals all around the Kalamazoo area and the rest of Michigan since the early ’90s. “If the theme of the mural is relevant or comes from within the community, there’s ownership. If we do a paint-by-numbers mural with the community, they helped create it. They own it.”

Kaufman recalls a mural he did in the paint-by-numbers style with the help of the community in Sturgis that eventually had to be painted over due to age and fading.

“There were a couple people who were upset,” he says. “It’s not that they were complaining after they saw the replacement. Ownership is a big part of it, which leads to the longevity of it.”

Muralist Patrick Hershberger mentions the special challenges of painting murals.

“Murals are weird things,” he says. “It’s not like it is art on a canvas. You’ve got UV exposure, new building owners, artists that bring lawsuits against people because of ownership issues. There’s a lot of complicated things that get involved, I guess, on (whether) murals stick around or if they don’t. I’ve had plenty of my stuff painted over, and honestly, I mean, I started getting into this because it was ephemeral.”

‘In people’s faces’

Artist and muralist Ellen Nelson comments on the special benefits of murals for a city. “I think it’s important to have art in people’s faces,” she says with a laugh in her Park Trades Center studio, in downtown Kalamazoo. “Just people’s access to art improves the livability of a city … and I think it makes people’s lives better. If people see beautiful things, they’re less likely to trash the place and it uplifts people.”

Nelson was commissioned to paint a mural on the north wall of Ambati Flowers, at 1830 S. Westnedge Ave., by a family friend the summer after her senior year of high school. Faded now, the mural still creates a clear identity of flowers and family for the building.

“That was fresh out of high school, right after graduation,” she says. “It was really before I learned anything about color mixing or anything like that.”
Nelson says painting a mural is hard work.

“If I’m doing a mural, I’m working harder (than if I’m painting in the studio),” she says. “I’ll mix up a big batch of paint, and I gotta use it before I can do anything else, so I can’t just stop and have my lunch. I gotta put that off. Otherwise the paint’s gonna dry up.”

Nelson’s mural on the Lake Center Business Association building, at 9029 Portage Road, between West and Austin lakes in Portage, was completed in 90-degree heat over the course of about three weeks. Each letter of “Lake Center” was done as a bubble letter and filled with images from fruits and veggies to lake scenes and beyond.

One of the newer murals in the city, Hershberger’s “Welcome to Washington Square” mural, on the south wall of the building at 1350 Portage St., looks like a classic postcard crossed with a billboard, cheerfully greeting pedestrians and motorists as they go about their business in the Edison neighborhood.

“I had somebody say the other day, ‘Washington Square? Who even calls it that?’ and I said, ‘Well, you will now,’” Hershberger recounts.

“You know, there’s a point to this mural. Not just beautification, it’s identification of this spot,” he says, tapping for emphasis the surface of the table at which he’s ignoring his lunch. “(The Edison neighborhood) is an important part of the city. It’s a culturally diverse place and one that has a lot of history in the development of this city.”

The Washington Square mural took about a year to complete, and was funded by the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, the Local Initiatives Support Corp., the Kalamazoo County Land Bank and the Edison Neighborhood Association.

Each letter of “Washington Square” is filled with an iconic visual snack from Edison’s past and present. Scenes include local businesses, old and new, a lakefront and even the train station at 459 N. Burdick St. They were chosen by Edison residents, young and old, says Tammy Taylor, executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association.

“That’s why some of the pictures up there are from back in the day when the longtime residents of Edison remember,” she says, “and then the other spaces that are going on now.”

Making them happen

So what does it take to paint a mural? To begin with, a stable, relatively smooth surface to paint on. Kaufman says brick surfaces need a “good cover” before the mural is painted or it’ll flake. In some cases, the wall may need to be primed and resurfaced in order to host a mural.

For the Washington Square mural, the biggest hurdles for the Edison Neighborhood Association and Hershberger were not only to find funding to have the wall resurfaced but also to make the necessary repairs to the roof of Howard’s Party Store, at 1366 Portage St., which would need support scaffolding to hold a human muralist safely for the duration of the project.

Along with the scaffolding, Hershberger had to rent a construction lift that went about 40 feet in the air, in order to project the image on the freshly resurfaced wall so he could trace it onto the wall to place each letter correctly.

And then there’s the paint. It’s a whole other beast, with different consistencies at different temperatures. Outdoor murals are typically painted in the summer, which means that the paint dries very quickly. Nelson points out that acrylic paint meant for outdoor painting is different in consistency from typical acrylic paint in a tube that artists use for paintings on canvas.

“You have to have good materials,” Kaufman says, noting that plain old acrylic paint won’t do. A professional, outdoor-grade acrylic is necessary for longevity in weathering the elements.

“The paint company I currently use (Golden Paint) estimates the paint lasts 30 years without fading,” Kaufman says.

Hershberger says he uses a professional-grade spray paint in addition to acrylic in a can.

Depending on a number of factors, murals can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month or two to complete. The size of the mural, the experience of the muralist, and weather patterns can all affect a project’s timeline. Nelson says that every time she does a mural, she completes it a little more quickly than the last one. She estimates that her first mural, on Ambati Flowers, took her at least four weeks, while the Lake Center piece took her closer to three.

“It’s hard to say because, you know, there’d be some days where I’d have to stop halfway through because the rain’s coming,” she says.

Murals come to life in myriad ways. Sometimes a specific artist is asked to submit sketches and concepts; sometimes there are open opportunities to submit mural ideas within a community. In the case of community murals, a design must be approved by a board and/or community before the submitting artist can begin working on it.

Personal favorites

When the three muralists are asked to pick a favorite mural they’ve painted, each artist responds with a mix of bewilderment and exasperation.

“Good grief!” says Kaufman, who has painted, in his estimation, more than 270 murals throughout his extensive career.

“Um, gosh, I never thought about that,” says Nelson, the youngest of the three muralists, at 27. She completed her first of four murals in 2009. “Because each one … presents its own challenges, that’s what I love — figuring out the puzzle of ‘How do I approach this?’”

“That’s really hard,” says Hershberger, who has been a Kalamazoo resident for just four years and has already left a distinct mark on the local urban landscape.

Kaufman zeroes in on his Kalamazoo-iconic mural on the building that formerly housed the People’s Food Co-op, on the corner of South Burdick and Cedar streets (yes, the one that got the car-sized makeover in March 2017).

“That’s one of my favorites,” Kaufman says, “partly because it was my first real mural. A lot of sweat and blood in that one.”

Kaufman also zeroes in on a mural from the Friends of Poetry series “Poems That Ate Our Ears” that was painted over by new building owners. Depicting a chickadee on a snow-covered branch, the mural still lives online on Kaufman’s website.

Nelson’s favorite mural is of vibrant peacocks and stoic elephants that endures in the no-longer-in-use service elevator shaft at the Park Trades Center. The then-owner of the Park Trades Center, John Thingstad, hired Nelson to do the mural and gave her free rein to paint what she liked in the elevator shaft. At the time of the mural’s creation, the service elevator was used but did not see a lot of traffic. In 2015, the building’s new owners, PlazaCorp, took the elevator out of service.

“It was a unique experience,” Nelson says of painting the mural. “I didn’t see the light of day for, like, two weeks.”

Nelson completed the mural at the end of 2013, she says. In 2015, PlazaCorp bought the Park Trades Center. Though she was disappointed that the elevator was shut down — it was difficult to use, she says — Nelson was able to show the mural to family and friends and take pictures before it was shuttered away.

“It’s a bummer that the elephants are trapped in the elevator shaft,” she says, “but it’s also kind of a fun little piece of trivia.”

Hershberger (who also paints under the moniker Bonus Saves) chooses the mural he painted for One Well Brewing Co. as his favorite because, he says, “It’s basically me being a fanboy and everything I’ve loved in life. It’s all my characters and then everything I loved reading as a nerd in the library as a kid, you know?”

Room for more

So what does the future of murals in Kalamazoo look like?

‘I think there’s still a fairly consistent demand, if slow, for public murals,” says Kaufman. “There’s all kinds of buildings that have nice, fresh walls in need of paint.”

Hershberger agrees. “We can only get more,” he says. “I feel like there’s so much room for growth here.”

Nelson has a specific vision for a new mural. “I’m notorious for painting in piles of things (into murals), and what if we had a giant mural of people’s stuff from all over Kalamazoo?” she muses. “You know, like stuff that’s important to people or this old keepsake that was in a family for 100 years, (and) now it’s on this mural.”

Jordan Bradley

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